A good novel can make a good film if handled right! A great Novel almost never becomes a great movie, because it's too great for film. Dune by Frank Herbert shares many of the same problems as Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard! The filmic adaptations of both novels were labors of love from established stars (David Lynch and John Travolta respectively), and in both cases the novels became meandering, silly B-Movies with one dimensional characters and over-acted, goofy dialogue. Wait... am I saying that the great, great David Lynch's vision of Dune is as bad as the movie version of Battlefield Earth? Lord help me, no... I'm saying that Dune is much, much worse on almost every level!
Dune is widely considered by critics to be the worst movie of 1984! Roger Ebert declared it to be the "Worst movie of the year!" while the Video Movie Guide gives it their lowest rating of "Turkey!" Like many of you I grew up watching the movie version of Dune on HBO in the mid-eighties, and I was ready to watch this again, and point out why this was not the case... Unfortunately I did watch this again, and I have to say that Dune is bad! Shockingly so, considering the pedigree. David Lynch is a filmmaking master! From Twin Peaks to Blue Velvet to his Oscar nominated new millennium work, I really thought he could do no wrong! Dune seems aimed at proving just how much wrong Lynch is capable of! To put this in perspective for you, Lynch was at that time considered the most avant-garde director ever to hit commercial success! From the surreal Eraserhead to the critic and audience acclaimed The Elephant Man along with being on the short list to direct Return of the Jedi (not kidding) Lynch was considered worthy of a massive undertaking! So he was given 47 Million (in 1984 standards, this was one of the biggest budgets in history) to give the world Dune, "A world beyond your experience, beyond your imagination." It's beyond something all right!
Spoiler Warning: I've gone over and over this in my head and have decided that there's no way for me to review this film without giving away some major points in what passes for a Plot here! If you have not yet seen the David Lynch version of Dune and would like to, please don't read on, because this might just ruin it for you! The movie starts (as it probably should) with Princess Irulan setting the stage for the "plot!" Irulan is the future historian of all that transpired in the novel. Unfortunately here she seems a little bumbling with such silly segways as "Oh, I forgot to tell you!" (Of course her voice pops up once in awhile to fill in Lynch's gaps when he leaves out large portions of the novel.) Beyond that, the first thirty eight minutes hold a collective 3.8 minutes of textual accuracy. Instead, Lynch picks out every surprise that the novel had to it and reveals it within the opening. It almost feels like Lynch finished the screenplay and then realized all he left out, then added a long boring opening to tie some of it up! Meanwhile he adds such oddities as the Padishah Emperor actually being controlled by the Spacing Guild (rather than the Spacing Guild being controlled by the Fremen)!
Lynch has always been a master of subtlety which is what makes his works so engrossing! Here he spells everything out for us (throughout) as if only idiots would watch this (I wonder) and demonstrates so little of what he reveals. Time after time something major is revealed, but all we have to go on is that one of the characters made a huge deal about it... Seldom is this ever demonstrated in the ways that Lynch usually handles things. So much of the action in the source material takes place in the inner mind within thoughts or dreams. Lynch's answer to this? Voiceovers as omnipresent as tattoos on a Biker! For example, when the Hunter Seeker drone attempts to assassinate Paul in his quarters, he explains exactly what this is, then he explains exactly what he's going to do to stop it, then he does exactly what he said he was going to do, then someone walks in and he starts all over explaining it, but out loud this time! I wish this was the only example of this, but it seems to be the recipe for the whole movie!
Kyle MacLachlan is one great actor, and he still showed it here, particularly in the duty-bound yet still playful boy that Paul Atreides was. As he grows though he doesn't seem all that much more mature or venerable. In fact his most serious moments feel a little forced, over-acted or campy (especially during a ubiquitous voice over). The most interesting thing about Sting playing Feyd-Rautha is that Sting is playing Feyd-Rautha. Sure it's interesting to see Sting, who at the time was fresh off the heels of singing about Roxanne not putting on the red light, acting like some heavy-metal throat slashing maniac, but if it were any other "actor" he'd be considered an over the top ham without a scary facial expression to cash in on the creepiness with. Kenneth McMillan must not have been gross enough just by being fat and ugly as Baron Harkonnen so Lynch added Syphilitic sores all across his face. This and one mumble as he sees Sting in his underpants(!) is as far into the sexuality of the Baron as we get. The sexual imagery Lynch does use is annoying and at times nauseating! Amazingly Patrick Stewart still shines and is the only one with a Range of Emotions. In spite of the fact that the character of Gurney Halleck is about as well written as a Rod McKuen poem, Stewart does give his all and is possibly the most memorable character. It's great to see him acting against type as well! Even child prodigy Alicia Roanne Witt is only notable if you know that actresses story. The rest of the cast (can we call them that?) pretty well exists as one dimensional chess pieces for Lynch to steamroll over. Sure Virginia Madsen and Sean Young are nice to look at but the exception-less lack of character development makes them more forgettable than anything else.
In mad dashes to prove he was making a movie that adapted Dune and not just some fan fiction vaguely set in Frank Herbert's universe, Lynch does throw in a few lines verbatim, which was a nice little bone to be thrown. Unfortunately scenes of that kind feel as different from the rest of the script's over-expression that one might as well be flipping between two or three movies with similar looking casts. In the scene in which Duke Leto Atreides is the first to spot the wormsign (an act which saves the lives of several spice miners) the entire scene is altered from what happened in the novel. Sure that's fine, if it makes sense, but this had no ramifications. Lynch wanted to be different I guess. Likewise, the Thifur Hawat subplot is barely hinted at, and for the time they gave it, should have been omitted! Paul's drinking of the "Water of Life" resulting in a 2 minute ordeal furthers the feeling that Lynch got to a certain point and just wanted to get on with it... to hell with the novel!
For TV versions of this film, David Lynch's script is actually credited to the pen name "Judas Booth" (sort of a "Too little, Too late" version of Alan Smithee), but he may as well have collaborated with Gregory Benford! They didn't even attempt to get the Ornithopters right, or put in the religion that the novel showed was so important. Other such continuity premeditated murders include the "Weirding Way" being not a fighting style, but a voice activated gun (for Peter Parker's Sake); the addition of "Heart Plugs" as a method of cruelly killing Harkonnen servants (okay... why waste time on that when so much is missing from these 145 minutes?); Paul psychically controlling the worms (you could make a Pizza with that Cheese); and the Fremen riding Worms into battle (a ridiculous development shared by the 2000 Television adaptation)! Call me cinnamon because I'm on a roll here... If the Spacing Guild is against the feud between the Harkonnens and the Atreides, and the Spacing Guild is the only way to get across space (without dying of old age), why would the Spacing Guild transport Atreides, Harkonnen, and Imperium troops into battle? Are they hoping everyone will die and no one will control the spice? And who thought a score by the band Toto would put everyone in a sci-fi mood? I've heard the music described as "Beautiful!" Yeah, in a mid-eighties synthesized way! I thought that any second A-Ha was going to jump out and perform "Take on Me!" to soothe the savage worms!
Now what about the end? (Refer to Spoiler Warning above!) The end is a joke, right? I half expected David Lynch to walk onscreen dressed as FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole from Twin Peaks with hearing aid and all and scream "I'm just kidding! Here's the real movie, Coop!" The second half goes by way too fast with no development at all, so when the final battle comes one is left a little weary of what's really happening. For one thing, the Fremen ride in on Worms Paul tamed with his powers (which is again, so wrong! Sure they rode them, but it was a tenuous test of strength, they weren't tamed)! It seemed clear that Lynch wanted this to be spectacular, but it's actually pretty humorous! The death of the Baron is another bit of unintentional humor. I was pleased at first to see Alia Gom Jabbar him to death! But when he floated of into the magically breaking apart ceiling, then did a bee-line horizontally into the open mouth of a worm... I had to laugh, there sparky! The final sequence is a microcosm of the mess that the whole film is. Paul barks some orders at the Emperor, then suddenly decides to fight Feyd-Rautha when it looks like no one will listen to him. Look... a gun... jump it! None of the wonderful dialogue and future of the universe concepts are even touched! Even the duel itself is as lame as two nerds fighting over who gets to help Mrs. Muggins in the Middle School Cafeteria! So Feyd dies (goofily) then Paul suddenly for the first time here gets religious, and then it rains. Why? Alia says "because he is the Kwisatz Haderach!" Oh! So? Earlier on Paul-Muad'Dib shows that because he can destroy the Worms, he controls them (then stupidly, he literally starts controlling them). Well, Herbert indicates that the one thing that's truly poison to the worms is Water... so Pauly's little rain dance just killed the worms, stopped the spice flow, killed billions of addicts, and crippled the galactic economy! Hmmm... no wonder this movie only showed its religion in the end... They need it now!
Well, I guess it's no secret I was a little dissatisfied by Dune. I'd love to give it my worst review possible. I would, but there's just enough redeeming value to keep it from dogging out! The visuals aren't bad at all, especially for 1984's technology! The sets are fascinating... not so much Herbert, but dark and bleak like Dark City or Alien (making me wish that the O'Bannon, Giger film had taken off)! Lynch's handling of the Fremen blue within blue eyes is very good. Not as glowingly blue as the Television Version, and pretty realistic looking! I liked the Ships (though they had no textual precedent), and the sets, space scenes, and buildings were a treat to watch! How did they handle the Worms? Very important question... the answer is... they were nearly perfect! The coloring, the menace, the dynamic actions... The Worms were right out of the source material! I disliked Paul's mind control of them, and the lightning strike effect that accompanied "wormsign," but the effects and the (legitimate) worm riding were so good it was surprising! Too bad it wasn't enough to save this mess!
Two Stars for Dune and that's with Generosity to the great, great David Lynch! This is definitely not Frank Herbert's vision, but Lynch's! The beginning is far too slow with additions that Lynch threw in (for indecipherable reasons) and the second half is far too fast paced, and vapid! Hey, I still love David Lynch, but I think I'm happy he passed on the whole Star Wars thing there. Please, please don't let him ever read Asimov's Foundation and decide it would make a "Neat Idea!" I couldn't bear it! Thank Heaven Battlefield Earth is off limits for a while. Pee You!